"When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground." —African proverb
Oral tradition is at the heart of African American folklore. We have isolated and analyzed the music, tales, and art that form its core. Each of these traditions has performance patterns in common. Whether in the public performance of tales, sermons, hymns, or blues, or in the private carving and painting of images, generations of African American artists have interpreted and expressed their culture. In each, the black performer, like the ancestral African griot, is a voice for the community. The storyteller, the musician, and the visual artist articulate their community’s culture in an old, familiar relationship with their audience known as “call and response.”
Just as Old Testament prophets voiced the will of Jahweh for the people of Israel, the African American artist finds an inner voice for his or her people through oral traditions. Within these traditions the artist defines and mediates the important polarities of life and death, male and female, sacred and secular, urban and rural, North and South. The artist therefore becomes a "gatekeeper" who beckons and points the way in a journey marked by the signposts of oral tradition. When crossroads appear on the horizon, these signposts instruct travelers and point to the road they should follow. Oral tradition then becomes a cosmology, a belieef system in whose spiritual maps are embedded the heart of African American culture. These maps are read by both ear and eye as we hear the voices of singers and storytellers, and as we view the paintings and sculpture of artists. It is the world of vernacular art that, although quickly taken in by the eye, offers the most complex and profound signpost. Its images offer both a complete visual experience and a voice that extends deep into African American history and culture.
BUILDING THE JOOK
Within the vernacular culture, the jook joint provides an example of how African culture endured in the American South. Possibly derived from "yuka"—which means "to make a noise, to hit or beat" in the ViLi dialect in Zaire—"jook" is a familiar, frequenty used word in the South which originated in African languages as did "okra," "tote" (carry), and "jazz." In the vernacular of the African American, "jook" as a verb has come to mean to play the blues or have a good time; the jook joint is a small building where musicians and dancers gather on weekends to party.
The jook joint is an appropriate metaphor for the workplace of black artists who nurtured and developed their traditions. Music has always been central to both African and African American cultures. In Africa, traditional singers known as griots both consoled and celebrated their people through music. From childhood, the southern black artist develops traditions that are rooted in ancient memories. Musical forms such as the blues and work chants echo earlier African musics that were part of their Old World culture in Africa. As the artist grows older, traditions such as the blues blossom and become part of the jook joint and its culture. Referred to also as "jook houses" or simply "jooks," they formed what became known among itinerant musicians as the "gut bucket circuit" because chitterlings (pork intestines) were served to customers who came to listen to the blues and dance. Alice Walker captures this world in The Color Purple when Shug, the blues singer, performs in a rural jook joint.
James "Son Ford" Thomas was a storyteller, a blues performer, and a sculptor. He excelled in each medium and articulated common themes that related to his experiences as a poor black man in the Mississippi Delta, a flat alluvial plain that extends from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg, Mississippi. As a black man, Thomas lived on the fringe of the powerful white Delta society, and in the black community he learned lessons early that helped him survive. As a child he worked with his grandfather, Eddie Collins, in cotton fields near Eden, Mississippi. Each morning, the white boss checked to make sure that they were working in the fields and then went into town. After his departure, Thomas and his grandfather would put down their hoes and go fishing. Fishing with his grandfather offered an escape from both school and work in the cotton fields, and was Thomas's greatest childhood pleasure.
Like Huckleberry Finn, who headed out for "the territory" to escape the confines of middle-class values, the young Thomas left his mother to five a freer life with his grandparents:
I could sort of have my way with my grandmother... if I didn't want to go to school, she wouldn't make me. I could go fishing or hunting or do like I wanted to. I didn't like to go to school too well ..., and with her I could play sick. She'd put her hand up there on my head and say, "That boy got hot fever I ain't going to let him go to that school and fall down," I'd be feeling good. I'd get back in the bed and I'd grunt around there till school time was over with. Then granddaddy'd get his fishing pole and get ready to go fishing. I'd jump out of bed and say, "I feel a whole lot better now."
Thomas's blues music and his sculpture were also territories of freedom in which he could express himself openly. He first explored these worlds as a child and seldom played with other children. Alone at his grandparents' home, Thomas began playing with clay and discovered a love for the medium that later revealed itself in his sculpture: "Most of the time when I was young, I never did fool with no boys or nothing. I mostly played by myself. I never did play with too many children I never did fool with too many boys because I was always busy. Just anything would run across my mind, I'd do it. I was always around the house making fish nets, or molding clay, or something."
As art engaged his childhood imagination, so, too, did music. His grandparents had a wind-up gramophone that entertained neighbors who visited their home to hear blues come from the mysterious box. Thomas's grandfather was afraid of the gramophone and suspected that as it played music, the box was also telling his boss what was happening in their home: "A long time ago all we had to play records on was those graphophones because we didn't have no electric [electricity] My granddaddy he was kind of scared of it when it first come out, you know. He was scared to play it. He'd say, 'You play that thing in the house, and it'll start telling the bossman what's going on.' He'd holler to me, 'Cut that damn thing out, or the bossman will come!'"
On weekends as a child, Thomas played guitar with his grandfather. His grandmother played piano, and when she and her husband performed together on weekends, their music drew large crowds to their home. The grandparents' music, nestled in the intimacy of their home as it was, set the stage for Thomas's career as a blues artist: "He [the grandfather] played old records [songs] further back than we can go. He played them old-time blues. You know, he used to keep a gang around the house all the time. He'd play guitar and tell funny jokes, and it'd be just like we was selling whiskey, there'd be so many people there."
When he was eight years old, Thomas first learned to play guitar from his uncle, Joe Cooper, who marked the guitar's neck with a pencil to show where he should place his fingers on the strings to form chords. He soon began to play blues in a small cafe in Yazoo City and drew so many people he had to stand on the counter to play: "After I learned how to make a couple of chords, why I could beat him [his uncle, Joe Cooper]. And then he started charging me fifty cents or a dollar to play his guitar. He wouldn't let me play his guitar lessen [unless] I paid him back So when he'd go to work, his wife would let me play his guitar. I'd play until noon. Then when he'd come in, I'd quit, and I'd start back playing again at one o'clock I learned to play real good that way"
Thomas soon discovered that his world of music offered an escape from work. He bought his first instrument, a Gene Autry guitar, through the Sears and Roebuck catalogue for $8.50: "After I got my guitar I wouldn't pick no more cotton. That was it. I wouldn't work no more." Thomas respected the blues as an important connection to the roots of his culture. By performing them he connected his life to "way back times" that spoke within the music. Through blues, he affirmed historical roots and acknowledged generations of bluesmen that played long before he was born:
The blues has been out so long, you know, you can't hardly tell where it started at all. My granddaddy, he was about seventy-five years old when he died, and I used to hear him talk about the blues. Well, there must have been blues before his time, because there was blues when he was a boy. You can't never tell about that. I think there always was the blues. They come from the country, I believe. You take a long time ago, you see, you'd catch fellows out in the field plowing a mule. You'd hear them way down in the field late in the evening . . . You'd hear them singing the blues. That's why I say blues come from the country.
From childhood, James Thomas was drawn to blues and sculpture, two passions that shaped his career until his death. His nickname, "Son Ford," was given to him as a child when he molded images of Ford tractors in clay. These small clay tractors attracted attention in 1937 and he was nicknamed "Thirty-Seven Ford"; later his nickname was shortened to "Ford," and finally to "Sonny Ford." Thomas was proud of the nickname because it recognized his art and associated it with him and vowed that if he ever recorded a blues record he would list himself as "Son Ford" on the label:
Back where I lived in Yazoo County they wouldn't hardly know who you was talking about if you'd go over there and ask for James Henry Thomas. But if you say "Son Ford" they would know because they give me that name when I was going to school. I used to make little Ford tractors out of clay. I'd put me some sticks through there [as axles] and make me some wheels and let it dry and then I'd have something to roll across the floor: That was back in 1937 when they first started calling me "Thirty-seven Ford," and then they started calling me just regular "Ford" from then on. So I said if I ever record records, I'd have it put in, "Sonny Ford." That's so all my friends would know who I was.
This early link in his mind between his blues and sculpture is significant because he followed a common creative path in establishing both his musical and visual art styles. Both his sculpture and his music were "done by head, not by no book or no picture." Thomas's Uncle Joe Cooper first taught him both to play blues and to mold clay. After learning these traditions from Cooper, Thomas excelled in both and quickly came to overshadow his uncle:
This [his sculpture] is all done by head, not by no book or no picture. I have never went to school to do this. No teacher has ever taught me nothing about it. My Uncle Joe was the first person that showed me. He started me off molding. But he never did make nothing but little mules and stuff like that. If my uncle had kept on he probably could do as good as me. But now I doubt whether he could make anything. . . . I tried the same thing that he tried and I done pretty good on it, so I took it oven It wasn't too hard to me to catch on. I just kept on trying until I got perfect on it. A lot of days I would be by myself and I'd walk two or three miles to get me some clay and I'd come back home and sit up by the fireplace at night and make things until I got sleepy. I got where I could make mules, and rabbits, and squirrels, and things like that, and from that I went to making birds.
Thomas began to sculpt quail, and his work reminded blacks of the traditional rule that only whites could kill the game birds. Quail were reserved for privileged whites who hunted them with trained bird dogs; this restricted hunting of quail reinforced racial codes that supported a caste system based on race in the rural South: "This is a quail I made here. In Mississippi the white people didn't want the colored people to eat no quail. See, they had more meat than other birds . . . better meat. So I don't care if you had a license for hunting, you couldn't kill no quail and let it be known. You could kill blackbirds, but if you killed a quail, it was just like you done shot somebody"
Thomas made his first sale of clay sculpture while still in school. During a period when his grandparents worked an entire week for two dollars, he sold several of his clay horses for three dollars. The lesson was not lost on him. He began to sell his clay sculpture to pay for school supplies that his grandparents could not afford:
That was when I was a little-bitty boy going to school—I'd say about six years old. That's how I got my school money. My grandmother and granddaddy would work a whole week for two dollars, so they wasn't able to buy none of that stuff for me. So I made this sculpturing to buy me crayons, pencils, paper; and all like that. I'd sell the things that looked good enough around the neighborhood where we lived at. And so after I got grown I liked to be doing it, and I just kept going.
The highest I ever sold was when I was small, one day I sold some horses and I got three dollars for them. A fellow from Vicksburg was over at Eden and I had them horses in a box.
He said, "Where'd you get them little horses?"
I told him I made them.
He said, "I'll give you three dollars for them."
Well that sounded big then, and I just handed him the whole box. So I would wind up making more than my grandmother and granddaddy and I was just sitting at the house sculpturing.
PLAYING THE JOOK JOINT
From his earliest discovery of blues, the music beckoned, and Thomas entered its new and exciting world. Still a child, he slipped away from his grandparents' home to hear music on Saturday nights in local jook joints:
When I heard some of them old songs, I was a young boy, see. I'd slip around to those dances and I'd hear them old-time blues. They'd [there would] be house parties back in the hills, out in the country. That's what you call jook houses. Those are them old raggedy houses way back out in the country. We didn't have but one night to have a good time, see, so we'd stay up all Saturday night and try to get some rest on Sunday. All in the late hours of the night you could hear those guitars. You could hear them for three miles either way.
In the small smoke-filled jook joints, the attraction between the sexes was almost palpable, reinforced by the music and the dancing. These scenes made a lasting impression on the young Thomas: "And they used to do the Cakewalk, but now if you come down to a Saturday-night dance, they just want the Slow Drag. And, you know, every time a man's back is turned to his girlfriend or wife, he's whistling at another woman. . . . That's the way it does down in Mississippi."
I wasn't allowed at night clubs but I would slip out on a Saturday night, and Elmore James played all night long. That was north of Yazoo City on 49 East. I'd slip down there and play with Elmore and Sonny Boy Williams. Sonny Boy Williams, he didn't like me to play Elmore's guitar; but Elmore, he didn't care. He'd let me play long as I'd want to, and Sonny Boy would set on the stage and roll his eyes.
The blues also offered a clear alternative to religion; Thomas strongly beheved that it was wrong to mix blues with religion. A choice between the two worlds had to be made, and his choice was clear:
You know, the blues is nothing but the devil. . . . I always say that when I decide to join a church, I'll lay all them blues aside. . . . You can't carry both of it on. Saturday night you can't go over to Greenville and play the blues at a nightclub overthere, then come Sunday morning call yourself a church member. . . . That's what you call going too far wrong. You can't serve the Lord and the devil too. You can only serve one at a time.
While preachers criticized bluesmen for singing the devil's music, Thomas felt that the blues performer was consistent in telling the truth as he saw it. Preachers, on the other hand, delivered a pious message on Sunday, but the remainder of the week pursued the same venal interests as their parishioners: "And you can't always go by what them preachers say, because right now some of them drink more whiskey than me. Some of them preachers ain't living for nothing but money and some chicken and a nice-looking woman. That's all they're living for."
Through the blues, Thomas connected with his feelings and expressed them in his music. Blues became a metaphor for the profound grief that connected him to his people. He sang for enthusiastic audiences who clearly heard his message and felt it with their hearts. When his music connected on this level, he called it by name: "I get a feeling out of the blues. That may be because I been worried a lot. See, my first wife quit me and I had the blues ever since then. Any time you get lonesome, you want to hear some blues. . . . That's how the blues started. You get worried over some thing, what you call a deep study . . . that's the blues.
Thomas reflected on the creative process and how he composed blues. Through this process he expressed his feelings in songs that he called "make-ups." Such songs captured the feelings of both the singer and his audience in spontaneous lyrics:
They're right-now songs. That's like when you make up a story or something. Just like if somebody mistreats you, you can make up a recording [song] about them. You sing, like:
You mistreat me now,
But you can't when I go home. . . .
That's the starting of a song and from there on you can put in anything else you want From then on you can just skip around and do what you want to do. You get you some more verses and put them together and mix them all up You just sit down and they'll come to you.
As Thomas became better known for his performances, he traveled to jook joints in small communities all around the Delta. He became expert in the ways of jook joint culture, and learned to sing near a door or window as a means of quickly escaping the room if and when violence erupted. Thomas vividly recalled how one night he had played for a woman who owned a jook joint near Tchula, and as he was singing, a gunfight erupted between this woman and two men:
I went to Tchula once. A lady wanted me to play for her and we went northeast of Tchula, way out in the country. So they got to fighting up there that night. A fellow went and got some shotguns and came back and started shooting down toward the house. So that lady didn't have no husband. She got her shotgun and went out in the yard and she started shooting back at them. She ran two men away with that shotgun. Both of them had guns. I never will forget that. I never would come back there 'cause there's danger of getting shot in the face when there's a lot of people dancing and there's shooting in the house. You don't know what's going to happen. Lots of people got killed like that.
As Thomas grew older, he traveled by bus from his grandparents' home in the hills near Yazoo City to visit his mother in the Delta at Leland. There, he quickly found a local jook joint where he began to play. Run by Shelby "Poppa Jazz" Brown, the "Rum Boogie"—as it was known—became Thomas's true home in Leland, and Brown became his musical father. Nicknamed "Poppa Jazz" because of his patriarchal role in helping young musicians launch their musical careers, Brown was familiarly called "Jazz" by his friends. He recognized Thomas as a bluesman with talent who drew a crowd and featured him at the "Rum Boogie" each Saturday night. While Thomas sang and played his guitar, he was often accompanied by his friend Little Son Jefferson on harmonica. Together, they developed a theme song to open and close Brown's club each Saturday night:
On Saturday nights, that would usually be the night I'd come to Leland. I'd get off the bus and go and see my mother and sister there. Then I would go round to Shelby's club and he'd have boys around there playing the guitar I'd go around and play some with them and then come back to the house. Shelby was a big man then. He had plenty of money. He'd hold his head way high then and talk loud. He'd have men hanging around there playing the guitar and everybody'd meet up there on Sunday for big jokes and drinking. They'd have a nice time round there.
Shelby Brown recalled how Thomas first came to his jook joint:
When I'd see Son coming I'd be glad. It was just like that all night long. We didn't go to bed. Them there gals hung around me, you know, with that good liquor and stuff. They like that. I started a jazz band and they started to calling me "Poppa Jazz." Well James, he come here. I knowed his mother and sister and all of them here, you know. And he came here one night. I had a joint open down there called the "Rum Boogie."
He said, "I'm gonner play a number" "What's your name?"
I said, "Go on. I know you."
I knowed who he was. So he went on that stage and everybody liked him. I said, "Buddy, when you come back through here, you stop."
So every time Son would come, he'd come over here and look for my guitar He could play it. I'd be looking for him, too. That was when I named him "Cairo." You see at Cairo the water got so high, and he played that blues:
I would go to Cairo, but the water too high for me.
The girl I love, she got washed away.
He really rapped it. Everybody liked it Every time folks see me, "Hey, man, you seen Cairo?"
"No, but he'll be here tonight."
"We'll be back then."
They sure did come. They liked to hear him play, and he could play all them kind of blues. I loved the blues all my life. That's all I ever liked.
Thomas recalled how he and Little Son Jefferson would open and close their performances for Poppa Jazz with familiar refrains:
Good evening, Everybody.
Peoples, tell me how do you do.
Well we just come out this evening,
Just make a welcome with you.
Well it's all on the counter.
People, it's all on the shelf.
Well if you don't find it at Mr. Shelby's place, People you can't find it nowhere else.
Then when we got ready to close down the place we would sing:
Good bye, Everybody.
You know we got to go.
Good bye, Everybody.
People, you know we got to go.
But if you come back to Mr. Shelby's place,
You will see the same old show.
Like his "make-ups" of blues songs, Thomas created original sculpture through a "future" or dream of an image that he rendered as art. He reflected on the creative process through which he shaped both his music and sculpture:
When I do my sculpturing work, things just roll across my mind. Like I see a picture in a magazine or on television, and that's what I'll go by. Sometimes I may not get it direct [exact], but I make it as far as I can remember on it. I look at the picture to get the future of it better The future . . . that means if I was going to make a man that looked just like you, that would recollect you. The futures come in dreams. The dreams just come to me. I lay down and dream about the sculpture I'm liable to dream anything. That gives you in your head what to do. Then you get up and try. If you can't hold it in your head, you can't do it in your hand.
Thomas is perhaps best known for his sculptures of human skulls. These haunting images sat on the mantle above the fireplace of his friend Shelby "Poppa Jazz" Brown in whose home Thomas played blues on weekends. He carefully explained how he created his skulls:
I make a face first, then make me a skull. First I shape it up like a regular man's head. Then I cut it down to a skeleton head. . . . Your eyes are on a level with your ears. They can't be a bit higher than your ears and they can't be no lower They got to be the same level your ears is and that's why you don't have no trouble making glasses. . . . So I go back to where I done mashed up there with the eyes, and that's automatic the nose.
Ugliness and death are central to the meaning of Thomas's skulls. He felt that the skulls reminded the viewer of his or her own mortality and made the person reflect more deeply about life:
A skull has got to be ugly because it's nothing but bones and teeth. People are more likely to be interested in something like that than they would be in a bird. They'd rather see a skull. Then too, a lot of people have never seen a real skull and they're probably wondering how it will be when they die. They say, "Will I be in the same shape that skull there is in?"
AT HOME IN THE JOOK
Thomas believed in the power of voodoo. Once when he was "low sick" he had disturbing hallucinations:
Most of the white people, they don't believe in hoodoo. But it is something. It's got to be. I got that way once. I was small and my grandmother she'd make me sleep on this cot that we'd got from some white people. I just couldn't rest on that cot. I'd see all kinds of men and little boys and everything coming up around that cot and hitting me. And I heard my grandmother and them whispering and saying they believed I was going to die the way I was carrying on. So they finally got rid of that cot. And I didn't feel that way no more.
His grandfather associated Thomas's clay skulls with ghosts. The haunting expression of their empty eye sockets, blunt noses, and jagged teeth made a deep impression on the viewer. As a child Thomas happened to leave one of his clay skulls on a table one night:
My granddaddy was scared of dead folks, and one night he had stayed up late. He came in and lit him a match to light the lamp and, first thing, he looked in the skeleton's face. Instead of pulling the globe off the lamp, he jumped and dropped the globe and run into my room and told me, said, "Boy, you get this thing out of my house and don't bring another in here. I already can't rest at night for spooks now."
James Thomas's clay skulls and faces were displayed in the home of Shelby "Poppa Jazz" Brown, where Thomas played blues on weekends. Like Thomas's skulls, the jook joint and the blues music performed there on weekends have a strong aesthetic tie with African and Afro-Caribbean cultures. In the black community, brightly colored, hand-painted signs on interior and exterior walls vividly distinguished the jook joints.
As a blues performer and sculptor, James Thomas was never comfortable with the church. He joked about an old blues man who, when warned that he should change his ways lest he die in sin, replied, "I'm gonner jook forty years more and then join the church."
Thomas always lived outside the church. From childhood, he seems to have been headed toward the blues and sculpture. He focused his creative energy on blues and sculpture, suggesting a clear cultural choice in his life. His blues and sculpture were both at home in the jook joint, where they created a familiar environment of sound and images for his community.
The jook joint, whether isolated in a rural cotton field or deep in an urban neighborhood, is a reminder of the constant, enduring presence of African roots in the life of James Thomas and his culture. Blues and art appropriately wedded in Thomas's career and through him were united in a Leland jook joint where their sounds and images lingered in the ear and eye of dancers as he sang:
Good bye, Everybody.
You know we got to go.
Good bye, Everybody.
People, you know we got to go.
But if you come back to Mr. Shelby's place,
You will see the same old show.